Friday, September 14, 2007

We can't see the goal!

My house sits perched on the edge of a valley that is Port Elizabeth. From my porch I can see straight down this tranquil valley and out to the crescent shaped harbour of Admiralty Bay. The bottom of this valley is a flat, fertile flood plain, not peppered with patches of small domestic agriculture, as you would expect, but a patch of grass that is the hub of this town, a green rectangular playing field.

Throughout summer it was cricket which inhabited this space, with a tiered concrete stadium on the north side. Now autumn is upon us (although no leaves are turning here) and the football season has begun. Matches are played as the heat falls out of the sun. They finish just before the great glowing orange ball immerses itself in the harbour and extinguishes its heat for another 12 hours. At around 4.00 every Wednesday and Friday evening I can almost track the highlights of the match from my house through the jubilant and derogatory noises of the crowd.

Just below my house there is a wall which holds the road to the edge of the valley. People sit and linger here and watch the football as they pass. Tonight I joined them to watch the game. There was the white team and the fluorescent yellow team. Most of the white team had dreadlocks and any time one of them touched the ball the crowd would cry 'go rasta go!'. They even addressed each other as rasta, 'here rasta", 'pass rasta'. It struck me that this was a trifle confusing and may account for the team of flying dreads being 3-1 down to the belisha beacons.

The pitch is still raw from the season of cricket, with a gaping brown scar down the middle where the crease had been. It is tended to, it seems, by grazing goats in the day and in the season becomes a place for sound systems and dancing after dark.

Young boys, seemingly oblivious to the match, played their own game as they kicked a ball around behind the sidelines. The crowd exploded with cheers and taunts every time the ball approached a goal. From our elevated seats on the whitewashed wall we could only tell when the white team had scored by the reaction of the crowd. A beautiful young 'dread' with Egyptian cheekbones had greeted me when I perched myself onto this exclusive viewing spot. Not with a word or a sound, just a nod. As the game progressed he ventured a bit further down the conversational field, the talk was preceded by the customary offering of a half smoked joint which he pulled out of his back pack and lit as if he had been saving it for this precise moment. He asked me where I was from and if I was enjoying the game. 'It's a nice spot' he said 'only problem, you can't see the goal for the mango tree. It doesn't matter tho' he said 'we like it'.

I liked it too, high up above the pitch, looking out to sea as the sun was setting. Watching the vibrant colour washing itself out of the island as the evening haze marched in. Taking in the game which seemed to have drawn every inhabitant of the town to participate in the accompanying vocal chorus I emptied my mind, smiled again at the beautiful cheekbones and felt a deep seated sense of being part of this place. I didn't mind either that we couldn't see the goal.

Last night I met Egyptian cheekbones man in the street. He hailed me from the darkness and greeted me with the handshake of a clenched fist; knuckles touching knuckles. He introduced himself as, wait for it, 'Specialist Ninja Man'. Not just any Ninja man then, a specialist one to boot!

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Local lingo

There is feeling, simplicity and clarity in the local lingo which is easy to be seduced by and eventually embrace. That is when you can understand it of course! The locals are fully aware that once they slip into their personal patwa they may as well be speaking another language as far as us whities are concerned. I would like to think that my ear is gradually tuning in and beginning to make sense of the hidden vowels and consonants but it may all just be an illusion. The only clue I can usually grasp which hints that I am being talked about is the proliferation of the word 'she' in every sentence.

When I first arrived I joked about the cat's mother but really I found the overuse of 'she' when referring to women as mildly offensive. On further examination though I have noticed that the men cop it too. 'He' and 'she' is used here in the traditional sense in which we use it at home. It is, however, also substituted for his and hers. So if someone is talking about 'her father' they will say 'she father' instead. This can lead to a lot of shes in one breath. For instance:

'She went to pick up she child from school and take he back to she house where she cooked he some dinner'

Once you have clicked it makes perfect sense and being referred to constantly as 'she' is no longer a problem.

They use the same words here but in different ways and sometimes to great affect. If you are thinking about a person or a situation too much, so much so that you become preoccupied or stressed, you are said to be 'studying' . If your girlfriend has run off with someone else and you hit the bottle to drown out the hurt and the pain then you are 'studying she too much'. I like that. For that is what you do. You are not just 'thinking' about her in a situation like that. You are going over and over the whys and wherefores. You are studying the situation and trying to work it out and usually it is best to stop. I have been told many a time not to study something or someone too much and usually it has been fine advice.

If you are going somewhere for lunch, let's say to Dawns, a lovely little Creole restaurant on the beach, you are not going to Dawns, you are going by Dawns. This has the added advantage of being slightly unspecific. I am forever calling people on their cell phones and asking them where they are; 'by Andy's' they will say. Which means, in all reality, that they can be anywhere in the near vicinity of Andy's, they do not actually have to be at Andy's. This can make tracking people down an exasperating experience. You usually find them in the end though. This, as I have said many a time, is a small small place. It is uncanny the amount of times you are talking about someone and lo and behold a few moments later they will show up, as if they knew.

You are always hailed and acknowledged by people who know you as you pass. They shout your name, a greeting or sometimes just a sound. Some will stop and chat and some will walk on by. The ones who acknowledge you but do not stop are known literally here as shouting friends. People you know, who also know you but with whom you do not have a personal relationship. Acquaintances, we would call them at home, but I much prefer shouting friends.

And what do these shouting friends of mine shout at me? A long time ago I wrote about the myriad of terms, mostly derogatory, that have been assigned to me over the years due to my elevated height. Lamppost, Giraffe, Lofty, Gangley, the list goes on. Here, I have found myself a new name and it is I want to hold on to. It is celebratory and positive, complementary in the way it is spoken. When I walk the streets of Bequia I am greeted from bars, from beneath the shade of trees, from the markets and from boats. 'Tallest!' echoes across the streets and the waves. Tallest by name and Tallest by nature, Tallest I will forever be.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

What do I do all day?

The sultry season is well and truly upon us. The harbour front is closing down and the staff of the little restaurants and bars are taking their much needed holiday. They work all year round until now, the summer, the quiet season, the hot season, when they close for a month and we all retreat to our homes waiting for life to return in November.

They say if you can survive a summer in Bequia you are 'hardcore'. We are getting there but are not yet through the worst. 'The worst' of course is all relative. What can be bad about living on a Caribbean Island? Nothing really, nothing is bad. But it is trying at times, a test of something. 'Silly season' they call it; the summer. There is little to do and even less people to do it with, but still we pass our time.

People at home ask me what I do all day. 'Nothing' I reply playfully. I try to convince them that it is a fine art this nothingness. You wrestle, at first, with guilt and restlessness. 'I should be doing something, I should be busy'. It takes not weeks but months to wind yourself down to a state where you can happily wake up each morning with no idea of what you are going to do. But still the day passes and happily, usually. I still fight the inbuilt urge of list writing. If I have more than a couple of things to be achieved in a day I feel I should write it down. But I don't, I stop myself, I just get on and do it. If I forget something there is always tomorrow.

I have moved house again this week and extended my visa; these have been stressful times. House hunting here, like everything, is done by word of mouth. There is no register or list of places to rent. You carry on with your daily life and ask everyone you know or pass whether they know of anywhere that's free. I was passed from person to person, driven from this place to that. I discovered secret gems and art studios high up on deeply vegetated hills and finally landed in the new place I call home.

Extending your visa is always a nerve wracking experience. There is no rhyme or reason to how the system works. When I first arrived I was given 3 months. I went away, sailed to North America and on my return was given only a month. The visa extending process usually involves going to immigration, filling in a form, showing them your flight ticket out of here and stripping yourself of all the freedom you have ever known by leaving your passport with them for 3 days. You return, anxiously to collect it, are met by an expressionless face which gives nothing away, and are eventually told to go to the next desk to buy your $25 stamp. This is the signal that you are in, you have made it, you can stay.

This time however it was different. For starters I was given a new form to fill in, a 'sponsorship form'. This worried me slightly, why was it different? The form involved me tracking down my landlord and asking him for various details. He had to make a trip back up the hill to find his passport number for me. The form explicitly stated that even if you had a sponsor you were 'prohibited to work'. The next section asked for details of your employer! A trick question perhaps? Who knows, I left it blank. When I finally arrived back at immigration with all my forms complete they were closed, for lunch. An hour of loitering and chatting to friends and I finally went back and submitted it, gritted my teeth and handed over my passport. Without looking up he told me to go and buy my stamp. I looked at him perplexed, this usually happens when you collect your visa. I bought my stamp, carried it back across the room, he stuck it on the form, stamped my passport, and handed it back to me. That was it, no stripping of one's identity, no nervous 3 day wait, my visa was granted right there on the spot. No-one I know has ever had this happen to them. I have no idea whether it is to do with me or the mood of the man on the desk, but I walked out quickly, without looking back, in case he changed his mind!

And so the days go by. The laundry gets washed, the floor is swept and meal after meal is made. The beach is walked to, the length of the bay swum, talk is talked and gossip is passed.

And sometimes I actually sit down and write my blog!